The old man walked the length of the yellow concourse and paused before Gate 14. For five years he had contemplated this day with a mixture of relief and foreboding. He had never doubted that it would come, but--oh god--not under these circumstances. Hadn't he been punished enough?
The passengers were beginning to disembark, snaking down the portable tunnel leading from the airplane to the waiting room. First, came the executive types from first class, professionally attired in wrinkle-proof business suits and travel weary faces; then the tanned and bronzed vacationers, carring souvenir evidence of their fun in the sun. The old man peered down the tunnel hoping to catch sight of--he wasn't sure of what.
He hadn't seen the child since it was an infant, newly born and fresh out of the hospital. Amanda and Josh had come home to give birth to their baby. At least they had had that much sense, Was that the boy? The one negotiating the final twist in the tunnel with the flight attendant in tow?
The old man adjusted his glasses and squinted, trying to bring the letters of the child's nametag into focus. "Well, hello there, young man. You must be Matthew." Although the boy's hair was bleached white from days in the sun and his face was tropic-tanned, there was no mistaking those eyes.
The boy stopped and regarded the not-quite familiar face of the old man standing before him. The old man saw a flash of recognition flicker in the child's eyes, like some genetic memory kicking in, reassuring him that this was the face he sought. "My mom calls me Matt. Are you my grandpa?"
"Yes," the old man replied. A pang went through him as he realized he was most likely going to be the boy's father and mother as well. He wondered if the child had any comprehension of the turn his life had taken.
"What's your name?" the boy asked.
What's my name? My god, didn't they even tell him that? "It's John," he replied.
"What should I call you?" the boy persisted.
"Grandpa, I suppose," Amanda had always called him "Papa." His Amanda, the focus of his life, who had forsaken him to follow the compulsions of the man she loved.
"Can't I call you 'John'?"
"If you wish."
"How 'bout 'Grandpa John'?"
"Sounds good to me."
With their relationship established, John offered his hand to the boy and felt the warmth of his acceptance as their fingers intertwined. Dealing with strangers did not seem to pose any problems for the child. John supposed the boy had met many during his short lifetime.
They retraced the old man's footsteps back down the yellow concourse. Then, they watched the luggage slide down the chute onto the revolving carousal. John recognized the gaily-flowered travel bag, a long-ago birthday present for Amanda still holding its own with the help of twine and tape. Matthew identified the suitcase as his and together they retrieved it. The boy looked at it for a long moment, then solemnly stated, "My mom's name is Amanda. She's very pretty."
"You know my mommy?"
"Yes, she was my little girl once."
"My mom was little, like me?"
"She was until she grew up."
"Then what did she do?"
"She married your daddy."
His daddy, Joshua. The determined, dedicated, one-track young man with the direct pipeline to God and an authority so absolute that no mortal dared contradict it. Joshua had received "The Call" on the day of Matthew's birth.
"The campesinos are in a bad way," read the dispatch. "They need comfort and guidance. They need food for their spirits and prayers for their souls. They need someone to give them hope in their hour of need and bring them to the Lord at their hour of death."
"We're going to go to them," Joshua had stated, the holy light shooting out of his steel gray eyes.
Columbia? A white sheet of panic had clouded John's mind. Not his precious daughter and now his only grandchild to that war-wracked, self-devouring hell-hole of a country! He had wanted to reason with Joshua--plead with him for the lives of his daughter and grandson, but his numbed brain had betrayed him, feeding his lips the wrong words. "Why don't you get a real job so you can settle down in one place and take care of your wife and child the way you're supposed to, instead of traipsing around the countryside like a goddamned Jesus gypsy shoving religion down everyone's throats!"
Joshua had looked at him with an intensity so fierce it froze out any further protests. "It's God's will," he had stated, then walked away.
Desperate with fear for her safety, John had taken his plea directly to his daughter. But if Amanda had any doubts about her husband's righteous choice, she hid them behind that pure, bland facade that missionary wives seem to cultivate along with the souls they tend. John had decided to go for broke.
"Amanda," he'd said, "the banker in town is an old friend of mine. I've made arrangements with him for you to work in the bank while Joshua is busy dodging bullets and saving souls in that God-forsaken country. You and Matthew will live here with me."
It had worked. He'd cracked her facade. But instead of the relief and gratitude he'd hoped for, she'd shown him a look of incredulousness and disgust. Amanda had simply said, "I'm going with him," and the next morning they were all gone--Amanda, Joshua, and Baby Matthew.
Maybe they'd been too busy to write. Maybe their letters hadn't gotten through. John had had no word of their whereabouts until last Wednesday when he received a terse telegram from missionary headquarters.
MISSION OUTPOST OVERRUN BY HOSTILE FORCES. JOSHUA AND AMANDA UNACCOUNTED FOR. CHILD MATTHEW SAFE WITH CHRISTIAN BRETHEREN. SEND INSTRUCTIONS.
The pain that had been John's companion for the past five years was now transformed into anguish, swelling within him to envelop his brain, his soul, his very being, before escaping from his throat in a primordial wail of helplessness, horror, and grief.
At least they'd had sense enough to leave the boy behind on this last, foolhardy assignment. John wired missionary headquarters the plane fare to send Matthew home to him.
"Matt's quivering voice interrupted John's thoughts. "I'm never going to grow up," he said.
"Because when people get big, sometimes they go away. Then their kids never see them again."
Looking down at the child who was struggling to hold back the tears that threatened to overfill his eyes, John felt the bile of bitterness rise in his own throat. "Sometimes people's daddys never see them again, either," he said sadly, "and then they have no one."
Matt blinked in bewilderment and the tears spilled down his cheeks. "But Grandpa," he protested, "you have me."
John regarded the boy. His own eyes misted over as he thought of the five years of estrangement separating him from his family. Five years filled with bitterness and fear, guilt and remorse, and now, the ultimate sorrow. Then, remembering a day five years ago when they had rejoiced as a family with the birth of a child, the mist cleared.
"His name shall be Matthew," Amanda had stated. "God's gift to us all."
John knelt down and gently blotted the child's eyes with a tissue. "Yes, Matthew" he murmured, "I have you. Come. Let's go home."